Indigenous Cultures and Hi-Tech Drones Reveal Secrets of Siberia

By Jeff Kerby

Mid-July on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula and the mosquitoes are biting my face. The big Russian helicopter that minutes ago slurped free from the tundra now floats quietly on the southern horizon. With a collective sigh, my Finnish and Russian colleagues take stock of our situation. It’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the bulk of our food supply sits abandoned on a distant helipad, and two thousand pounds of steel poles lay scattered haphazardly around us in the tussocks. Months of planning upended in minutes, but this is the reality of fieldwork. It’s hard to plan for a heatwave in the Arctic.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

A kilometer down the hill, we meet up with expedition leader Bruce Forbes, a geographer from the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland. He chuckles as we begin organizing camp, making sense of what supplies survived the journey. Dinner will have to come from the river. When the helicopter could only lift 70 percent of its normal capacity due to the extreme heat, we only managed to get tents, sleeping bags, and most of our technical equipment on board, at the expense of heavy canned food and sacks of pasta, rice, potatoes, and onions.

The materials we were able to bring will be used to fence-off small plots of land from hungry herbivores. When researchers return in a few years, these plots will provide insights into the response of vegetation to climate change with and without the influence of reindeer and other tundra fauna.Hammering hundreds of poles into frozen ground offers extended opportunities for reflection:take off a layer in the extreme heat or put on another to abate the endless mosquito harassment?

The logistics of working in Yamal are never simple, though they’ve certainly changed in the 30 years since Bruce and his colleagues began exploring the linked social-ecological system of Yamal during the Soviet period.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

Siberia is as diverse as it is immense, and Yamal is its northwesternmost finger. This peninsula juts into the Kara Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. Permafrost underlies its treeless, rolling hills. The changing hues of its lakes and winding rivers mark the highs and lows of the sun’s summertime loop around the horizon. Though stark, this landscape is far from empty.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

Yamal is home to the Nenets people, indigenous reindeer herders that migrate with their animals across the tundra. This same tundra has, in recent decades, formed the lifeblood of the Russian natural gas economy. The history of the Nenets and their current challenges (covered in the October 2017 National Geographic magazine) are complex, but they play an important part in the way this larger social-ecological system works.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

It takes a variety of approaches and perspectives from researchers and locals alike to make sense of this place from a social-ecological perspective, blending insights from geography, ecology, human and natural history, and climate. On this, my first trip to Siberia, I am one small part of a much bigger team. While I’ve worked behind the lens as a photographer for the magazine before, my professional training is as an ecologist—and that’s why I’m here now.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

Over the past five years, I’ve built and used drones to map and study natural systems in Africa, South America, and the Arctic, often via, including several National Geographic funded projects. In Yamal, I’m joining forces with mapping specialists from the University of Eastern Finland, and during breaks in the weather we fly missions to build 3-D models and multi-spectral maps of the landscape.

The resulting data fill in gaps of understanding about the structure and distribution of vegetation in this region. They also tie into Arctic-wide efforts to better understand vegetation change and its many impacts on herbivores, people, permafrost thaw, carbon cycling, and more. Satellites tell us that over the past 30 years the Arctic has greened, but drone data will help answer more precisely where and why this is happening and why it matters.

Photo by Jeff Kerby

Weeks disappear quickly, and I rush to fit in a few more critical flights before the helicopter is due to pick us up. Other team members prioritize final tasks, and a few Nenets drop by to say goodbye.

Unlike with a photo story, I don’t know exactly what insights lurk in the hard drives full of data. This will take months to analyze and eventually write up.But besides the scientific data, I also leave Yamal with new colleagues and a richer understanding of this landscape and the lives of the Nenets people.

We all shiver as we break down camp, not knowing that we will be staying there an extra 36 hours as a windstorm wreaks havoc on our tents. To the south, it stokes forest fires at the edge of the taiga that keep the helicopter grounded. Dinner again must come from the river.

Planning is critical for a successful  field season in the Arctic, but so is being able to let plans go when the Arctic reminds us who really sets the rules.


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